In Blog: Factually Speaking

Gina Thompson, Intern

The League is thrilled to report progress on one of our longstanding policy priorities: eliminating Michigan’s ban on food assistance for people with multiple drug felony convictions. We’re proud to be a part of Hungry for Justice (HFJ), a new coalition calling for this and other reforms to Michigan’s food assistance program that have been needed for a long time and are now even more urgent because of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Hungry for Justice has played a key advocacy role in moving Senate Bill 1006–the legislation to repeal the drug felony ban–closer to the finish line. We join our HFJ partners in thanking Senator Jim Ananich (D-Flint) for sponsoring the bill and the Senate Committee on Families, Seniors, and Veterans for sending it to the full Senate for a vote.

Under federal welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996, states may permanently ban people with felony drug convictions from benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), regardless of demonstrated need. Michigan’s lifetime ban applies to people with felony convictions from two or more separate incidents of drug possession, use, or distribution. At least 26 other states have completely removed the ban on SNAP assistance, with Virginia being the latest to join in 2020. 

As our new fact sheet explains, this lifetime restriction on SNAP unequally impacts Michiganders who are already vulnerable due to systemic biases such as the over-policing of communities of color, and the lack of support services available for people who are disabled. People impacted by this lifetime ban are more likely to have a disability. In Michigan jails, 4 in 5 people have a mental illness, with 1 in 3 requiring medication to treat it. Additionally, the likelihood of having a disability increases with age and the racial disparity also widens with age, meaning African Americans are more likely to have a disability in every age group compared to non-Hispanic Whites. Preventing people with disabilities from accessing food, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, can cause lasting health problems, malnutrition, and weakened immune systems. This is a cruel punishment considering COVID-19 is already impacting the Black community at a disproportionate level.

Disability is said to be “criminalized” because instead of receiving needed support services, people are often pushed into the criminal justice system and punished. The most common disabilities among incarcerated people are related to cognition and mental health. Michiganders returning to the community after drug-related incarceration are presently barred from receiving support services such as food assistance, and it reduces their ability to provide for themselves without community program assistance. 

Many available reentry programs aren’t designed to meet the needs of participants with a disability. Finding employment is difficult due to discrimination against formerly incarcerated people and people with disabilities. Access to SNAP supports a successful return to the community because it allows individuals to take a step towards self-sufficiency instead of relying on charity, altruism, and community assistance. 

A criminal record also impacts future earnings — especially for people with disabilities, who are already unemployed at nearly three times the national average, and when working, are paid only 63 cents for every dollar compared to workers without disabilities. Furthermore, African Americans who are disabled have a lower employment rate of 25% compared to the average of 33% for all people with disabilities. 

Barriers like the lifetime ban on SNAP assistance for people who were formerly incarcerated punish individuals a second time, long after they have settled their consequences with the criminal justice system. Michiganders convicted of drug crimes serve an average sentence of 6.4 years

This is not just a punishment for the individual, but also for their family if they are a parent or caregiver. Extending SNAP to households moving forward after drug-related incarceration would keep more children and people with disabilities out of poverty and ensure families can stay together. 

Parents are more likely to plead guilty to drug felonies in order to avoid separation from their families. Women are more likely to solely parent their children compared to men. Nationwide, 80% of women in jails and 60% of women in prisons have dependent children. Women are also more likely than men to be incarcerated with a drug offense.

The SNAP ban indirectly punishes the children of individuals who have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Allowing a parent to count towards the average monthly household benefit would ultimately mean more food in the house available for their children. More than half of Michigander SNAP participants are in families with children, and 40% are in families that include an elderly or disabled person.

Full eligibility for SNAP benefits reduces the probability that someone with a drug conviction will return to prison within one year by 13.1%. The average monthly SNAP benefit in Michigan is $1.32 per person per meal. This is a seemingly small investment with an immense impact on success for returning citizens, their children, and the rest of the community.

While the momentum this long-overdue reform has gained recently is exciting, we can’t stop to rest just yet. Senate Bill 1006 still needs the full Senate’s approval and then must go through the whole process again in the House. You can help us get it all the way to Governor Whitmer’s desk by contacting your state senators and representatives and urging them to support the bill.

 

 

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